I come from a long line of breastfeeding women. I always knew I wanted to breastfeed. Early on, I got a breastfeeding book from the library so I could give myself a head start as well as satisfy my constant desire to plan ahead. After all, I couldn’t control much of what was ahead of me in nine months’ time.
There is however only so much a book can teach you and like any new hobby such a car mechanics or learning a martial art, it is only through experience and learning from your teacher or Sensei that you will start to get the hang of things. There was no sign of my black belt in breastfeeding just yet.
My antenatal classes covered breastfeeding briefly but it was not until I attended a local Sure Start breastfeeding support group in north Belfast did I feel like I received the support I needed to confidently feed and progress up the grades towards a breastfeeding master.
The support group helped me understand I wasn’t alone and that I was doing the best for my baby. I was adamant that I wanted to continue breastfeeding so they encouraged and supported me to do so. I learned new techniques and holds, how to identify feeding cues and most importantly gained friendship from a great bunch of women; Sure Start staff, midwives, health visitors and importantly other mums. I looked forward to my Monday group each week and just having someone hold your baby while you got a warm cup of tea and a snack was invaluable.
The three weeks before I found my support group was the most difficult and possibly the time when a lot of women give up. The overwhelming tiredness, the four days in hospital from induction to C-section, the zoo-like visiting hours with lack of privacy to feed your new baby and the initial nipple pain. I did waver in those moments but a combination of stubbornness, family encouragement and instinct kicked in and I continued.
Once home, we continued by ourselves and I enjoyed the space breastfeeding gave us when the constant stream of visitors began. Breastfeeding also aided my recovery and I could feel my body contracting when feeding and day by day I became stronger. My partner and step sons were brilliant support, providing constant water and snacks to fuel our feeds day and night. Fionn was going from strength-to-strength so I was happy to keep going.
My first experience of breastfeeding Fionn in public was in a hotel in Donegal. I was flanked by my partner on one side and my mother on the other and a scarf to shield any embarrassment. Not of a flashing boob but of a flashing belly or two. I soon realised that no one could really see me and as the trips out became more frequent I gradually lost the need for a partner, mum or scarf to shield me.
Despite having had no negative reaction to feeding in public, like a lot of mums it was the fear of someone saying something so I used to rehearse in my head what I might say if someone dared to make comment.
But there were lots of other things that didn’t make breastfeeding particularly easy in those early days. I fed in the car plenty of times and all too many occasions in a baby changing room with an overflowing nappy bin. Another quandary was what to wear and finding the right nursing tops was always a struggle. Many high street shops sell them as ‘maternity and nursing’ and so expecting you to be the same size as when you were pregnant; it maybe tells you how long some of our high street stores think mums are going to feed. Many retailers also expect mums to be happy with buying online only but we like to try clothes on too!
So while you will hopefully be getting lots of support about feeding your nice little, tiny baby, for some this changes once you start to feed a walking, talking toddler and yes, with teeth. The media and society in general seem to believe that breastfeeding should stop around the time that a baby cuts his or her first teeth. In reality, a baby can’t actually bit you if they are latched on feeding but yes they can nip if they’re coming off but that can be managed with some guidance.
Also at this stage you get the comments about who needs what from whom; does your toddler really need the milk and it is now ‘all about the mother’ not wanting to let her child grow up. While criticism from strangers can be difficult I would argue that it is criticism from family members and others close to you can be much harder to handle.
I learned soon enough that there are lots of mums feeding well into toddlerhood and beyond as recommended by the World Health Organisation and there are other amazing women out there tandem feeding twins and others who pump to provide milk for their babies. There are also numerous selfless women across Ireland who pump to donate milk to a milk bank in Fermanagh which supplies milk to premature babies across the island. My breastfeeding goal was initially six months, but things were going so well that a year was upon us in no time and as my son who has just turned three, is happily continuing to breastfeed.
Apart from the WHO guidance that you should breastfeed your baby up to two years of age and beyond, there are lots of other reasons why it is good to feed a toddler. My son loves his ‘milkies’, yes he can ask for it. Milkies have been there to cure all ills from comforting him instantly when he grazes his knee to helping fight off colds and infections and most recently to comfort him through the chicken pox. While breastfed babies are at reduced risk of getting a range of illnesses such as gastroenteritis they are not immune to every cold and sniffle and believe me Fionn picked up a lot when he went to crèche but more than often it didn’t amount to more than a runnier-than-usual nose or being a little more fussier than normal.
In my experience, breastfeeding has been easy and yes I know it isn’t always the case for all mums but after a few days of sore nipples things got easier. I did have the nipple cream but I think mums who decide to breastfeed might be better served if more time was taken to show how to latch properly to avoid any pain rather than handing out nipple cream for after the event.
The right support is key to success; support of midwives, health visitors, family, friends and partners in particular. Not to mention the support of colleagues and employers when you decide to go back to work. Shoring all this up is the amazing breastfeeding support groups and the online support that is available. Breastfeeding in Northern Ireland (BFNI) Facebook page is a fabulous example of women helping women. A pamphlet from the hospital wasn’t much help at 3am in the morning when I was having problems latching but a resource of over 8000 women, many who are up at that time in the morning, was invaluable.
There are other support pages such as ‘Extended Breastfeeding Ireland’, a group of women choosing to feed their babies into toddlerhood and beyond. Groups like this are doing more for women than they get recognised for. Finding your tribe is hugely important, especially in the early days when you are mostly house bound.
It is of course a women’s choice in how she feeds her baby. I am very passionate about breastfeeding and have since met other similarly enthusiastic women who want to help mothers to reach their breastfeeding goals as well as support those women who stop their breastfeeding journey before they want to.
This year I joined the board of Breastival Belfast which aims to support, normalise and celebrate breastfeeding. I want to help make breastfeeding a normal part of our culture in Ireland, where we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Working in public affairs and public policy has given me the insight to the importance of investing in the public health of our children. Research shows that breastfeeding is one of the most effective preventative health measures for children and mothers regardless of where they live.
The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies, legislation and programmes in the community.
Apart from the numerous health benefits for mother and baby, there are lots of other reasons why breastfeeding is worthwhile. Not having to get up in the middle of the night to make a bottle [one my partner particularly enjoyed) was a highlight as well as not having to haul lots of equipment around in those first six months. Not to mention the significant financial savings in not having to buy formula.
I was though most comforted by the fact that I was giving Fionn the best start in life. It has been for me the most rewarding and amazing experience to be able to breastfeed my son and see him go from strength to strength, fight off illness and contrary to what some might think, but research backs, become a very independent toddler.Tagged with: advice for stressed mums, advice forum for mums, baby health, breastfeeding, breastfeeding advice, having a baby, pregnancy
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